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After the fireworks, the young married couple stops having sex altogether. 
            At first they don’t even really talk about it. And once they don't talk about it for a few days it becomes easy and natural to continue not talking about it. Billy thinks Betts needs space and he doesn’t want to come off as needy. Betts doesn’t want to apologize for not wanting to all the time, and also doesn’t want to come off as needy. Billy wants to prove to her that their relationship isn’t all about sex. Betts wants to prove to herself that their relationship isn’t all about sex. They both aren’t sure if they’re even funny anymore and hope this will somehow provide clarity on that.
            A week in, drunk outside a Park Slope tiki bar, she says, after pulling away from a kiss, “I just don’t want it to run out.” He nods. Does he know what she means? Partly. He doesn’t think sex is a finite thing, but whatever, he kisses her and thinks how nice it will be when they finally do have sex. Why bring it up until then? Things are going well. Why shrivel up into prunes, or turn sex into a bargaining chip, a holiday treat, or, worse, something one of them did to or with the other not out of love but out of marital obligation. This, they agree — this not doing it, together and agreeably — is part of their marital project.
            After the initial shift, the not-doing it and not talking about the not-doing it becomes exciting. It hovers between their every move like a fluffy pink cloud. Following a brief conversation in the bathroom one morning, Betts eyeing Billy’s AM hard-on — “I’m not, are you?” “No, I’m not, are you?” — they both stop masturbating. In those first few weeks it has the playful tension of a game, albeit a secret game with no real winners or losers. Perversely, it’s pure childhood. Billy thinks of Ethan Hawke in Gattaca, when he and his brother play chicken, swimming out in the ocean and trying not to be the first to turn around. Like Hawke, Billy keeps saying the secret to his persistence is that, “I don’t save anything for the way back.” It becomes his catch phrase, he mutters it to himself on his walks home, repeats it mantra-like each morning to her face. Betts starts to reply as Billy qua Clinton, saying each night before they go to bed, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” At one point, the Starr report plays a significant role in their extracurricular activities, with Betts playing the men and Billy the women. Like Lewinsky and Clinton, they leave each other gifts — her panties in his backpack, a (chocolate) cigar in her jacket, a new blue dress from the Salvation Army — and bring each other to the edge without actually going over it. It’s painful; it’s political; it’s a play-acting of their own marriage wherein their mistress is not another or even themselves, but no one and nothing.
            As the weeks go on it gets harder and harder, until there becomes something of a religious experience to it. It’s as if they have adopted the life of the Hasids amongst whom they live; except, unlike their neighbors, they can’t even fuck with a sheet between them; except their religiosity is Godless, self-instructed, or they are each other’s higher power (and thus not a higher power at all). At times, it’s enlightening. They both have profound experiences watching leaves fall. They take notice of things in ways they hadn’t before, the patterns of their own footsteps, the faint smell of fish on the streets in the morning, the way steam from certain sewer grates rises in sideways plumes and dissolves in the air around their faces. Betts has an epiphany that Extra chewing gum is called Extra because it’s actually Extra. There’s actually too much flavor. Maybe, she tells Billy, maybe we chew Orbit and Trident because we actually don’t want that much gum. Maybe it follows we don’t even need sex. I spend whole stretches of time, she continues, not even thinking about it at all. It’s a radical shift in perception. The most important and primal of things rendered, for a time, insignificant, nothing. I might become Tony Shaloub, she opines. I might become a monk.
            It renders them tender, too, as if their souls are as swollen as their erogenous zones. They cry more freely, tearing up at the sight of a small boy’s payot flapping in the breeze as he straddles the out-of-order mechanical plane outside a neighborhood hardware store, or at the sound of saxophone drifting through the open window of some passing Oldsmobile. They feel fragile, all nerve endings, and hollow, and full: a shell you hold up to your ear, an empty ocean. It makes them want to avoid each other, despite being in a one-bedroom apartment. She stays at work, he hangs out at the bar, and at home they try, in all neutrality, not to bother one another. Which has the opposite effect, of course — it makes them miss each other wildly, so they start performing acts of service. Involving food, mostly. They each gain weight despite now-frequent runs around the neighborhood in the sweltering summer heat. When they sit together on the floor of their room with plastic plates at their feet, they struggle to find words, so speak gibberish, become toddlers again, throw food, get sloppy. Then they lean into the messiness of it all, regress to chicken nuggets and chocolate chip cookies, excessive amounts of Hot Pockets and pizza rolls. One day they stop using utensils and the next they don't use their hands.
            They laugh at all this and then don’t, because laughter will only bring them closer, and they want to remain close, now, by not being close, or at least not being inside one another. It seems almost fundamental that they keep it going; they fear what will happen if they start after all this time, as if they are atoms bumping into each other, avoiding a merger for fear of the then-inevitable split, the mutually assured destruction. They watch endless movies and TV, but can never sit for long before the tension fills the room, their act of attention veering off in other, more chaotic directions. They read each other poetry, stuff he picks up from the library — early Ashbery, Dickinson, Rita Dove. They won’t touch Keats, she tosses her copy of Bright Star out the window and into the dumpster. For a while, they read to each other only in different languages.
            They start listening to baseball games on the radio, even though neither of them likes baseball games; then they start liking baseball and it’s great. Then it’s too great.
            They stop flushing the toilet, closing the door, spraying the Febreze. They stop cleaning altogether, don’t even brush their teeth at night. Clothes are everywhere, so is dirt, dust, dirty wet socks. But even this becomes attractive, their own degradation. They’ve seen a porno like this once, they think, though they haven’t watched porn in months.
            For a solid week and a half all they can do is watch Holocaust films and documentaries. Schindler’s List, Shoah, a PBS miniseries (but not The Pianist, she’s too into Adrien Brody, whose hair reminds her of Billy’s). They read Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank and Chaim Potok to one another, copies they haven’t touched since middle school. They cry, or try not to cry, they struggle to figure the whole thing out, how it was all possible, all so possible. The images are real, then unreal, then more unreal, until they have lost all perspective and time flattens and the suffering swirls about them, hovering there like the fluffy pink cloud, endless and empty and greedy for their want.  
            And why? Why all this insistence? Do they even know? Is it still for the sake of the “project”? (What “project”?) A cleansing of sorts? Proof of their pure love? Has it, ironically, become easier not to come? To have it as a supersense dominating all others? Which guides their choices, their daily habits, their lives? Which brings them into the moment? Which binds them inseparably together, the only living boy and girl in New York who aren't trying to come? Which replaces their other anxieties — of death, of loneliness, of supply-side economics, of what constitutes a meaningful life — with a primal yearn?
            “Why are we doing this?” she finally asks after two months.
            “I can't remember,” he says, letting a day-old McNugget flop from his hand to the floor.
            “Me neither.”
            “Should we stop?”
            “It'd feel like we’ve failed somehow.”
            “I just want to be good for you,” he tells her, brushing the hair away from her face or, rather, miming the brushing of hair away from her face, fearful of getting too close. They’re both crying again, sitting on the hardwood floor amidst a VHS box set of The Sorrow and the Pity, a collection of Rimbaud in the original French, heaps of wrinkled laundry, some half-eaten Slim Jims. The bed is unmade and one of the posts in its frame has to be refitted with duct tape in order for it to go on standing. They stare at it blankly and soon the post pops the tape, startling them. When, after a moment, it subsides, someone’s voice sifts in through the silence.
Go on now, it says. Sleep on it anyway.
***They’re just about at their breaking point when a middle-aged Hasid woman stops them on the street one Saturday afternoon and tells them, stern-faced, that they need to respect the neighborhood. When they ask, with the blinking eyes of naughty schoolchildren, what they’ve done wrong, she says she’d seen them necking on the corner by Sweet Delights, the ice cream shop. They look at each other and think — necking? — but also that, somehow, she must know about their sex game, all the blue balls and false starts, all the facile erections and lingerie, the filth, the filthy things they’ve thought about Anne Frank.
            But how can she know? And even if she does, isn’t that their own private Idaho? And, Billy thinks, isn’t he a Jew, too, and, as a paying tenant, aren’t these also his streets? Is this not the United States of America?
            So he shouts at her, channeling all his pent up sexual frustration:  “Respect whose streets? These streets?”
            Which gets the attention of two passerby who, hearing his screams, stop and ask the woman something in Yiddish. They wear black hats, wrinkled white dress shirts half-untucked out of loose black pants, and cheap black blazers. Perspiration drips down their foreheads in the late summer heat. The men look older than they are, before it dawns on Billy and Betts they’re just boys. Thirteen, fourteen years old, maybe even twelve. The woman explains (they presume) that there are pollutants in the neighborhood and that they became aggressive when they were told as much.
            This pisses Billy off even more, all their secret whisperings. Absurdly, the Gestapo comes to mind. Betts just wants it over with. But Billy goes on. “What are you gonna do about it?” he asks, gaining steam, not understanding their confused looks. They stare back at him. Each has the sad beginnings of a mustache. “What are you gonna fucking do about it?”
            The boys stare a moment longer before one inches closer to Billy’s face and asks, with an accent, where they live.
            “What’s it to you?” Billy retorts. He’s never even uttered that phrase before. He just wants to sound like a bully. Betts gives his arm a tug, which sends a jolt all the way down to his groin. She must be turned on by this, he thinks, even if her gesture might more realistically be saying no, I want you to stop. Billy stands tall and decides not to say anything at all. I’m a steel fucking trap, he thinks. They probably, after all, know their landlords, who, after hearing the news, will kick Billy and Betts out of their now-desolate marital suite for impropriety. These people, he decides, have no sense of American rules or principles, they follow no laws but their own.
            The boys don’t back down, however, so Billy puffs his chest out and says, almost randomly, “That’s what I thought” and begins to walk off, taking Betts by the hand. She’s got the bag with their ice cream from Sweet Delights in the other. Their plan to gorge themselves to neutral satisfaction with sugar now seems on the verge of being foiled. They start to walk away, away from their apartment, back up Kingston Ave towards Eastern Parkway.
            Halfway up the block, in front of the wig shop, Betts glances back. “They’re following us,” she says under her breath. Why hasn’t she turned them back towards home? She’s got the inkling of a mischievous smile on her face, but her eyes paint a harried concern. He looks back. Sure enough, there they are, the two sweaty boys, their wet socks squishing in their tacky black dress shoes, tzitzit twirling in the dense-hot city breeze.
            Billy’s seething — “Fuck,” he says — but in his pants he’s half-hard, even if he knows the boys are going to follow them, find out where they live, call the landlords, have them evicted. And in a buyer’s market no less! The sun beats down on the back of his neck. He squints at Betts, who squints back.
            “Two can play this game,” he mutters. She lets him drag her left onto President Street, known, popularly, as Doctor’s Row. She struggles to keep up in her pink flip-flops, her jean skirt, all while the bag of melting ice cream slaps against her calves. Among the dilapidated mansions they pass the house of the final rebbe in the Lubavitcher dynasty, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. His name, they once joked, sounds like something you sneeze. The boys trailing them ignore the crosswalks and hurry across the mounded speed bumps to follow them.
            At the cross section, Billy and Betts turn right and then, at Eastern Parkway, cross the street to the first median. People stream out of the subway from below. The boys aren’t far behind them, speed walking their way down the sidewalk. At the median, waiting to cross over into West Indian territory, Betts finally asks what exactly it is that they’re doing. Billy doesn’t know what she’s referring to: here, now, or in general? Is she secretly thrilled, angry, aroused, scared? He can’t tell. Neither can she. He doesn’t say anything. She isn’t sure she wants him to. Panic grips them both. The boys wait for traffic to pass with looks of slavish determination on their pale faces. Billy takes another right and leads them eastward along the wide boulevard, back towards where they started. The boys, on the other side of the street, trail along accordingly. By the time they get to the next block, they’ve all missed the walk sign and have to wait to cross again. Billy and Betts turn to face the boys, who stand tall near the front steps of the community’s flagship synagogue: red brick, imposing concrete steps. Beyond is Mendy’s, the Hasids’  imitation of an American-Jewish deli, as well as the wig shop, a fish market, a butcher, a small grocery, the ice cream parlor, a bakery. Betts had quipped once that the way no one took advantage of economies of scale in the neighborhood was downright un-American.
            Billy shuffles from right to left, and tries to cross the street early only to have a car nearly take out his right leg. The horn sends him jumping back on the curb, where he accidentally hits the bag of ice cream out of Betts' hand. It drops to the ground, splattering her shins with white and brown liquid.
            “Fuck, Billy, it's all over me!”
            He bends over, looking for a napkin with which to wipe her down. Unable to find one, he puts his hands on either side of her and readies his tongue, thinking: Well, I guess I’ll just have to lap this up myself.
            “Stop,” she says. She grabs his hair and pulls him off the ground. She can already feel the cream going sticky on her pale, unshaven legs. “Just — stop.”
            The crosswalk sign changes to the white glowing stick figure and people start to jostle past them. She takes his hand and sighs. What had begun as an adventure now seemed merely immature and dumbly masculine.
            “Let's cross,” he whispers, but she squeezes his fingers and holds her ground.
            “Ouch!” he yelps with a crazed smile, his voice breaking. It hurts so good!
            The boys, meanwhile, are doing yet another mitzvah by politely helping an old woman across the street.
            “What the fuck are we doing?” Betts asks. She’s staring back at the boys too, her eyes gleaming with something like hope, if not tenderness. Billy, all jumbled up, remembers he doesn’t even know what economies of scale means.
            “I —
            He still can’t think up an answer. What are they doing? He thought he knew, but now he knows he never had a clue. At the same time, the more she asks, the more Betts finds she actually wants an answer. The boys, having dispatched the elderly woman by the subway entrance, now charge towards them, huffing away, arms swinging out in exaggerated power-walk motion, and soon they’re close enough that they can hear the swish of their sweat-drenched dress shirts. Billy and Betts stand half-facing one another, paralyzed. Her hand goes slack in his. Billy doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know whether to fight them or apologize; doesn’t know what Betts thinks of him, whether she thinks he’s aggressive or valiant or both. Looking at her now, though, he notices, as if for the first time, her shoulders. They’re the roundest he’s ever seen. No bone at all. They curve out from her green floral blouse as if made from the purest of pale wet sand. He blinks and blinks again at them. It’s only as the boys inch closer, expectant, that Betts can finally catch his eye, and the couple share a silent recollection: looking out their window one summer night as the sun set a pinched-cheek pink in the distance, and seeing a group of young boys gathered in a circle in the alleyway, drinking Cherry Cokes across from the kosher Chinese restaurant. Hadn’t they wondered aloud that night what would befall the girls they couldn’t touch, if perhaps the boys would only ever communicate in sugar-crazed huddles and psalms?
            The boys cough beside them, signaling for their attention. But before the Hasid youth can admonish them, Billy grabs Betts by the wrist, plants his feet, puts his other arm around her, and kisses her hard on the mouth. They hold the pose. How romantic! The boys begin to shout in Yiddish, they spit at their feet, but Billy, Betts, they don’t care. Instead, she pushes Billy away and, squinting her eyes at him, yells out, “Really? Really? Is that all you’ve got?”

© 2022   Joe Eichner

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